"Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can. - Peter Singer
"Common sense is not so common." - Voltaire

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Most People Consider Themselves to Be Morally Superior

By Cindi May
Scientific American
Originally published on January 31, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

This self-enhancement effect is most profound for moral characteristics. While we generally cast ourselves in a positive light relative to our peers, above all else we believe that we are more just, more trustworthy, more moral than others. This self-righteousness can be destructive because it reduces our willingness to cooperate or compromise, creates distance between ourselves and others, and can lead to intolerance or even violence. Feelings of moral superiority may play a role in political discord, social conflict, and even terrorism.


So we believe ourselves to be more moral than others, and we make these judgments irrationally. What are the consequences? On the plus side, feelings of moral superiority could, in theory, protect our well-being. For example, there is danger in mistakenly believing that people are more trustworthy or loyal than they really are, and approaching others with moral skepticism may reduce the likelihood that we fall prey to a liar or a cheat. On the other hand, self-enhanced moral superiority could erode our own ethical behavior. Evidence from related studies suggests that self-perceptions of morality may “license” future immoral actions.

The article is here.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Is It Time to Call Trump Mentally Ill?

Richard A. Friedman
The New York Times
Originally published February 17, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

A recent letter to the editor in this newspaper, signed by 35 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, put it this way: "We fear that too much is at stake to be silent." It continued, "We believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Mr. Trump's speech and actions makes him incapable of serving safely as president."

But the attempt to diagnose a condition in President Trump and declare him mentally unfit to serve is misguided for several reasons.

First, all experts have political beliefs that probably distort their psychiatric judgment. Consider what my mostly liberal profession said of Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, right before the election. Members of the American Psychiatric Association were surveyed about their assessment of Goldwater by the now-defunct Fact magazine. Many savaged him, calling him "paranoid," "grossly psychotic" and a "megalomaniac." Some provided diagnoses, like schizophrenia and narcissistic personality disorder.

They used their professional knowledge as a political weapon against a man they had never examined and who certainly would never have consented to their discussing his mental health in public.

Goldwater sued (successfully) and, as a result, in 1973 the A.P.A. developed the Goldwater Rule. It says that psychiatrists can discuss mental health issues with the news media, but that it is unethical for them to diagnose mental illnesses in people they have not examined and whose consent they have not received.


There is one last reason we should avoid psychiatrically labeling our leaders: It lets them off the moral hook. Not all misbehavior reflects psychopathology; the fact is that ordinary human meanness and incompetence are far more common than mental illness. We should not be in the business of medicalizing bad actors.

The article is here.

A Crime in the Cancer Lab

Theodora Ross
The New York Times
Originally published January 28, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

We have all read about incidents of scientific misconduct; in recent years, a number of manuscripts based on fake research have been retracted. But they usually involved scientists who cut corners or fabricated data, not deliberate sabotage. The poisoned flasks were a first for me. Falsified data is a crime against scientific truth. This was personal.

I turned to my colleagues to ask how to respond, and to my surprise, they all said the same thing: my student, Heather Ames, was probably sabotaging herself.

Their reasoning? She wanted an excuse for why things weren't working in her experiments. Competition and the pressure to get results quickly is ever-present in the world of biomedical research, so it's not out of the question that a young scientist might succumb to the stress.

The article is here.

Friday, February 17, 2017

There is something rotten inside the medical profession

Originally published January 26, 2017

In the year it has taken for me to finish my medical residency as a junior doctor, two of my colleagues have killed themselves. I’ve read articles that refer to suicide amongst doctors as the profession’s “grubby little secret,” but I’d rather call it exactly how it is: the profession’s shameful and disgusting open secret.

Medical training has long had its culture rooted in ideals of suffering. Not so much for the patients — which is often sadly a given, but for the doctors training inside it. Every generation always looks down on the generation training after it — no one ever had it as hard as them, and thus deserve to suffer just as much, if not more. This dubious school of thought has long been acknowledged as standard practice. To be a good doctor, you must work harder, stay later, know more, and never falter. Weakness in medicine is a failing, and if you admit to struggling, the unspoken opinion (or often spoken) is that you simply couldn’t hack it.

In the cutthroat, often brutalizing culture of medical or surgical training many doctors stay stoically mute in the face of daily, soul destroying adversity; at the worst case, their loudest gesture is deafeningly silent — death by their own hand.

The blog post is here.

Uncertainty Increases the Reliance on Affect in Decisions

Ali Faraji Rad and Michel Tuan Pham
J Consum Res (2017) ucw073.
Published: 23 January 2017


How do psychological states of uncertainty influence the way people make decisions? We propose that such states increase the reliance on affective inputs in judgments and decisions. In accord with this proposition, results from six studies show that the priming of uncertainty (vs. certainty) consistently increases the effects of a variety of affective inputs on consumers’ judgments and decisions. Primed uncertainty is shown to amplify the effects of the pleasantness of a musical soundtrack (study 1), the attractiveness of a picture (study 2), the appeal of affective attributes (studies 3 and 4), incidental mood states (study 6), and even incidental states of disgust (study 5). Moreover, both negative and positive uncertainty increase the influence of affect in decisions (study 4). The results additionally show that the increased reliance on affective inputs under uncertainty does not necessarily come at the expense of a reliance on descriptive attribute information (studies 2 and 5), and that the increased reliance on affect under uncertainty is distinct from a general reliance on heuristic or peripheral cues (study 6). The phenomenon may be due to uncertainty threatening the self, thereby encouraging a reliance on inputs that are closer to the self and have high subjective validity.

The article is here.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

First human-pig 'chimera' created in milestone study

Hannah Devlin
The Guardian
Originally posted January 26, 2017

Scientists have created a human-pig hybrid in a milestone study that raises the prospect of being able to grow human organs inside animals for use in transplants.

It marks the first time that embryos combining two large, distantly-related species have been produced. The creation of this so-called chimera – named after the cross-species beast of Greek mythology – has been hailed as a significant first step towards generating human hearts, livers and kidneys from scratch.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who led the work on the part-pig, part-human embryos at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, said: “The ultimate goal is to grow functional and transplantable tissue or organs, but we are far away from that. This is an important first step.”

The study has reignited ethical concerns that have threatened to overshadow the field’s clinical promise. The work inevitably raises the spectre of intelligent animals with humanised brains and also the potential for bizarre hybrid creatures to be accidentally released into the wild. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) placed a moratorium on funding for the controversial experiments last year while these risks were considered.

The article is here.

Whatever happened to the DeepMind AI ethics board Google promised?

Alex Hurn
The Guardian
Originally posted January 26, 2017

Three years ago, artificial intelligence research firm DeepMind was acquired by Google for a reported £400m. As part of the acquisition, Google agreed to set up an ethics and safety board to ensure that its AI technology is not abused.

The existence of the ethics board wasn’t confirmed at the time of the acquisition announcement, and the public only became aware of it through a leak to industry news site The Information. But in the years since, senior members of DeepMind have publicly confirmed the board’s existence, arguing that it is one of the ways that the company is trying to “lead the way” on ethical issues in AI.

But in all that time DeepMind has consistently refused to say who is on the board, what it discusses, or publicly confirm whether or not it has even officially met. The Guardian has asked DeepMind and Google multiple times since the acquisition on 26 January 2014 for transparency around the board, and received just one answer on the record.

The article is here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Recent Trump win on China trademark raises ethics questions

Erika Kinetz
Associated Press
Originally published February 14, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Ethics lawyers say the trademarks present conflicts of interest for Trump and may violate the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless explicitly approved by Congress.

Countries could use Trump's desire to control his brand to extend — or withhold — favor, especially a nation such as China where the courts and bureaucracy reflect the imperatives of the ruling Communist Party.

"There can be no question that it is a terrible idea for Donald Trump to be accepting the registration of these valuable property rights from China while he's a sitting president of the United States," said Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama. "It's fair to conclude that this is an effort to influence Mr. Trump that is relatively inexpensive for the Chinese, potentially very valuable to him, but it could be very costly for the United States."

The article is here.

Judge Allows Lawsuit Against Psychologists in C.I.A. Torture Case

Sheri Fink
The New York Times
Originally published January 29, 2017

A federal judge on Friday allowed a case brought by former detainees to move forward against two American psychologists who helped devise the C.I.A.’s now-defunct program to interrogate terrorism suspects using techniques widely considered to be torture.

A United States District Court judge, Justin L. Quackenbush, denied a motion by the psychologists that sought to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction under provisions of a 2006 law that limits the ability of detainees to challenge their treatment.

“This ruling sends the strong signal that anyone who participates in shameful and unlawful government torture can’t count on escaping accountability in a court of law,” said Dror Ladin, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which, with the Gibbons law firm in Newark, represents the former detainees.

The article is here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Medical errors: Disclosure styles, interpersonal forgiveness, and outcomes

Hannawa, A. F., Shigemoto, Y., & Little, T. (2016).
Social Science & Medicine, 156, 29-38.



This study investigates the intrapersonal and interpersonal factors and processes that are associated with patient forgiveness of a provider in the aftermath of a harmful medical error.


This study aims to examine what antecedents are most predictive of patient forgiveness and non-forgiveness, and the extent to which social-cognitive factors (i.e., fault attributions, empathy, rumination) influence the forgiveness process. Furthermore, the study evaluates the role of different disclosure styles in two different forgiveness models, and measures their respective causal outcomes.


In January 2011, 318 outpatients at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in the United States were randomly assigned to three hypothetical error disclosure vignettes that operationalized verbally effective disclosures with different nonverbal disclosure styles (i.e., high nonverbal involvement, low nonverbal involvement, written disclosure vignette without nonverbal information). All patients responded to the same forgiveness-related self-report measures after having been exposed to one of the vignettes.


The results favored the proximity model of interpersonal forgiveness, which implies that factors more proximal in time to the act of forgiving (i.e., patient rumination and empathy for the offender) are more predictive of forgiveness and non-forgiveness than less proximal factors (e.g., relationship variables and offense-related factors such as the presence or absence of an apology). Patients' fault attributions had no effect on their forgiveness across conditions. The results evidenced sizeable effects of physician nonverbal involvement-patients in the low nonverbal involvement condition perceived the error as more severe, experienced the physician's apology as less sincere, were more likely to blame the physician, felt less empathy, ruminated more about the error, were less likely to forgive and more likely to avoid the physician, reported less closeness, trust, and satisfaction but higher distress, were more likely to change doctors, less compliant, and more likely to seek legal advice.


The findings of this study imply that physician nonverbal involvement during error disclosures stimulates a healing mechanism for patients and the physician-patient relationship. Physicians who disclose a medical error in a nonverbally uninvolved way, on the other hand, carry a higher malpractice risk and are less likely to promote healthy, reconciliatory outcomes.

The article is here.

Are Kantians Better Social Partners? People Making Deontological Judgments are Perceived to Be More Prosocial than They Actually are

Capraro, Valerio and Sippel, Jonathan and Zhao, Bonan and others
(January 25, 2017).


Why do people make deontological decisions, although they often lead to overall unfavorable outcomes? One account is receiving considerable attention: deontological judgments may signal commitment to prosociality and thus may increase people's chances of being selected as social partners --- which carries obvious long-term benefits. Here we test this framework by experimentally exploring whether people making deontological judgments are expected to be more prosocial than those making consequentialist judgments and whether they are actually so. We use two ways of identifying deontological choices. In a first set of three studies, we use a single moral dilemma whose consequentialist course of action requires a strong violation of Kant's practical imperative that humans should never be used solely as a mere means. In a second set of two studies, we use two moral dilemmas: one whose consequentialist course of action requires no violation of the practical imperative, and one whose consequentialist course of action requires a strong violation of the practical imperative; and we focus on people changing decision when passing from the former dilemma to the latter one, thereby revealing a strong reluctance to violate Kant's imperative. Using economic games, we take three measures of prosociality: trustworthiness, altruism, and cooperation. Our results procure converging evidence for a perception bias according to which people making deontological choices are believed to be more prosocial than those making consequentialist choices, but actually they are not so. Thus, these results provide a piece of evidence against the assumption that deontological judgments signal commitment to prosociality.

The article is here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Psychologist recounts interrogation of terror detainee

Shawn Vestal
Originally published January 25, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Jessen’s account was part of a series of documents recently released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU, which has filed a lawsuit against Jessen and his former business partner, James Mitchell. The interview represents the fullest public description of his role from Jessen, who lives in Spokane and operated a for-profit interrogation firm downtown staffed with former Fairchild Air Force Base officers. He has repeatedly denied interview requests from reporters.

The lawsuit against the two contractors is proceeding through federal court in Spokane. Rahman, through his family, is one of three named plaintiffs.

Jessen was interviewed as part of the CIA investigation into Rahman’s death at a “black site” known as the Salt Pit in Afghanistan in 2002. Rahman was a suspected Afghan militant and the CIA records refer to him as a member of al-Qaida.

In his interview, Jessen said his role varied from observer to hands-on interrogator, but makes clear he was closely involved. Another document says Jessen had six “sessions” with Rahman.

The article is here.

The "Bad Is Black" Effect: Why People Believe Evildoers Have Darker Skin Than Do-Gooders

Alter, A., Stern, C. Granot, Y., & Balcetis, E.
Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016 Dec;42(12):1653-1665.


Across six studies, people used a "bad is black" heuristic in social judgment and assumed that immoral acts were committed by people with darker skin tones, regardless of the racial background of those immoral actors. In archival studies of news articles written about Black and White celebrities in popular culture magazines (Study 1a) and American politicians (Study 1b), the more critical rather than complimentary the stories, the darker the skin tone of the photographs printed with the article. In the remaining four studies, participants associated immoral acts with darker skinned people when examining surveillance footage (Studies 2 and 4), and when matching headshots to good and bad actions (Studies 3 and 5). We additionally found that both race-based (Studies 2, 3, and 5) and shade-based (Studies 4 and 5) associations between badness and darkness determine whether people demonstrate the "bad is black" effect. We discuss implications for social perception and eyewitness identification.

The article is here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Expert Witness Testimony in Civil Commitment Hearings for Sexually Dangerous Individuals

Jennifer E. Alleyne, Kaustubh G. Joshi and Marie E. Gehle
Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online June 2016, 44 (2) 265-267

Here is the Discussion Section:

Sexually dangerous individual (or sexually violent predator) laws across the country follow a general scheme. The individual has been convicted of certain sexual offenses and has a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes him likely to commit similar crimes in the future. Whether decided by a judge or jury, the result is frequently the indefinite commitment of the person. Because the questions at hand are generally outside the expertise of the trier of fact, the testimony of qualified expert witnesses is crucial. Therefore, the admissibility and credibility of mental health testimony are often heavily scrutinized during the proceedings.

Mr. Loy sought to find Dr. Sullivan's and Dr. Volk's testimonies inadmissible on different grounds. Having a license on probation, giving testimony that creates an alleged bias, or, for example, routinely testifying for one side versus the other does not automatically render the witness unqualified or the testimony inadmissible. In most jurisdictions, the case law and statutes governing the admission of expert witness testimony allow for its use if the witness has some degree of expertise in the field in which he will testify and if the testimony helps the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact at issue.

Inherent in the civil commitment of sexual offenders are complex concerns regarding psychiatric diagnoses, risk assessment, and volitional impairment. The trier of fact depends on expert testimony to understand and decide these questions. If the expert has a skeleton in the closet, has an imperfection in his qualifications, or holds an alleged bias, the trier of fact should appropriately weigh the credibility of that testimony when rendering a decision. Such testimony is not automatically inadmissible. A court's discretion in admitting expert witness testimony will not be reversed unless the district court abuses its discretion in admitting expert testimony. Finally, in most jurisdictions, the court's assessment of witness credibility is granted deference.

The article is here.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Tale of Two Moralities, Part 1

Will Wilkinson
Niskanen Center
Originally posted January 19, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Because “the establishment” (including the Republican political establishment) is relatively cosmopolitan and liberal (in the broad sense), an outpouring of populist anti-establishment sentiment is going to assume a nationalistic, illiberal form more or less by default. The good news is that anti-elite anybody-but-Hillary-ism doesn’t really imply serious public appetite for anything like alt-right authoritarianism. The bad news is that the liberal-democratic capitalist welfare state and the so-called “neoliberal” global order is far and away the best humanity has ever done, and we’ve taken it for granted. We could very well trash it in a fit of pique, and wind up a middle-income kleptocracy boiling with civil strife and/or destabilize the global order in a way that ends in utter horror.

It is very important to keep this from happening! And that means it’s important to understand the mechanisms underlying our cultural and moral polarization. That’s what I’m going to begin to do in this (long!) post, in a preliminary, speculative, exploratory spirit. I want to push a little deeper than the prevailing journalistic narratives have gone, and churn up some credible empirical hypotheses that I hope will help us eventually home in on the correct diagnosis. Then we can hazard some recommendations that may help reduce polarization and mitigate its bad effects. I’ll do that in a future post.  

This important blog post is here.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Government Ethics Office Website Crashes Under Too Much Traffic — Again

Alina Selyukh
The Two-Way - Breaking News from NPR
Originally posted February 9, 2017

The Office of Government Ethics is back in the news as its website crashed, for the second time in less than a month, again under a flood of inquiries.

The advisory agency typically works to vet people who run the country and detangle them from financial ties that may influence their work in public office. And typically, this work happens quietly in the background when administrations transition from one president to another.

But the OGE has received an extraordinary amount of spotlight as Donald Trump has become president. OGE chief has been one of the loudest critics of Trump's decision to remain the owner of his worldwide business empire, with its vast web of financial interests.

On Thursday, the OGE's website was overwhelmed by a surge of clicks.

"OGE's website, phone system and email system are receiving an extraordinary volume of contacts from citizens about recent events," the agency said on Twitter.

Dysfunction Disorder

Joaquin Sapien
Pro Publica
Originally published on January 17, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The mental health professionals in both cases had been recruited by Montego Medical Consulting, a for-profit company under contract with New York City's child welfare agency. For more than a decade, Montego was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by the city to produce thousands of evaluations in Family Court cases -- of mothers and fathers, spouses and children. Those evaluations were then shared with judges making decisions of enormous sensitivity and consequence: whether a child could stay at home or if they'd be safer in foster care; whether a parent should be enrolled in a counseling program or put on medication; whether parents should lose custody of their children altogether.

In 2012, a confidential review done at the behest of frustrated lawyers and delivered to the administrative judge of Family Court in New York City concluded that the work of the psychologists lined up by Montego was inadequate in nearly every way. The analysis matched roughly 25 Montego evaluations against 20 criteria from the American Psychological Association and other professional guidelines. None of the Montego reports met all 20 criteria. Some met as few as five. The psychologists used by Montego often didn't actually observe parents interacting with children. They used outdated or inappropriate tools for psychological assessments, including one known as a "projective drawing" exercise.


Attorneys and psychologists who have worked in Family Court say judges lean heavily on assessments made by psychologists, often referred to as "forensic evaluators." So do judges themselves.

"In many instances, judges rely on forensic evaluators more than perhaps they should," said Jody Adams, who served as a Family Court judge in New York City for nearly 20 years before leaving the bench in 2012. "They should have more confidence in their own insight and judgment. A forensic evaluator's evidence should be a piece of the judge's decision, but not determinative. These are unbelievably difficult decisions; these are not black and white; they are filled with gray areas and they have lifelong consequences for children and their families. So it's human nature to want to look for help where you can get it."

The article is here.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Trolley Problem: Video Teaching Tool

The trolley problem explained simply in this video, in case you teach ethics or moral psychology.

The Trolley Problem from Eoin Duffy on Vimeo.

Financial ties between researchers and drug industry linked to positive trial results

British Medical Journal
Press Release
Originally released January 17, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

More than half (58%) of principal investigators had financial ties to the drug industry - including travel expenses, honorariums, payment for advisory work, or stock ownership.

The results show that trials authored by principal investigators with financial ties to drug manufacturers were more likely than other trials to report favourable results.

Even after accounting for factors that may have affected the results, such as funding source and sample size, financial ties were still significantly associated with positive study outcomes.

The authors point to possible mechanisms linking industry funding, financial ties, and trial results such as bias by selective outcome reporting, lack of publication, and inappropriate analyses.

The pressor is here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Medical culture encourages doctors to avoid admitting mistakes

By Lawrence Schlachter
Originally published on January 13, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

In reality, the factor that most influences doctors to hide or disclose medical errors should be clear to anyone who has spent much time in the profession: The culture of medicine frowns on admitting mistakes, usually on the pretense of fear of malpractice lawsuits.

But what’s really at risk are doctors’ egos and the preservation of a system that lets physicians avoid accountability by ignoring problems or shifting blame to “the system” or any culprit other than themselves.


What is a patient to do in this environment? The first thing is to be aware of your own predisposition to take everything your doctor says at face value. Listen closely and you may hear cause for more intense questioning.

You will likely never hear the terms negligence, error, mistake, or injury in a hospital. Instead, these harsh but truthful words and phrases are replaced with softer ones like accident, adverse event, or unfortunate outcome. If you hear any of these euphemisms, ask more questions or seek another opinion from a different doctor, preferably at a different facility.

Most doctors would never tell a flagrant lie. But in my experience as a neurosurgeon and as an attorney, too many of them resort to half-truths and glaring omissions when it comes to errors. Beware of passive language like “the patient experienced bleeding” rather than “I made a bad cut”; attributing an error to random chance or a nameless, faceless system; or trivialization of the consequences of the error by claiming something was “a blessing in disguise.”

The article is here.

The Theory of Cognitive-Ethical-Development Can Solve Any Real-World Problem

Baris Bayram


First, it is shown that evidence-based argumentations can demonstrate that anyone's real/ultimate self-interest is compatible with investing in a deliberate development of ethical systems, second, that scientific/causal determinism is not incompatible with ethical transformation efforts, third, that there is a crucial need for a developing a new ethical theory ("cognitive-ethical-developmental and ethical-possibility-enhancement": CED and EPE") that is integration of many scientific theories with a modified version of well-being and welfare ethics in order to effectively address any ethics-related issues for oneself and globally, and how it works. Also, according to this theory, it is primarily argued that both cognitive and ethical development of individuals, and systemic transformations are necessarily needed, and it is demonstrated that how such developments and transformations can be actualized thanks to "CED and EPE" approaches.

The paper is here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trump's Ethics Plan Is Even Worse Than You Thought

Timothy L. O'Brien
Bloomberg News
Originally posted February 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The documents note that President Trump is to receive “exclusive benefit” from any assets in the trust. In other words, he still could see profits from the Trump Organization flow directly into his wallet and he gets to keep those for himself. While Donald Trump Jr. and Weisselberg have legal authority over the assets in the trust, the president can revoke their authority at any time.

How much money might course through the Trump Organization and find its way to the president may never be discernable because Trump has resisted releasing his tax returns ever since he began his White House bid. Keeping those returns buried is also out of step with presidential tradition. While Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, has tried to minimize the significance of that lapse, Trump’s refusal to do so continues to concern voters.

Trump’s tax returns are significant -- they would offer the public a necessary window onto his business dealings, his philanthropic efforts, his overseas operations and the financial forces that will come to bear upon him in the White House. Yet Trump has latched on to a number of slender reasons for avoiding releasing them.

The article is here.

Business Leaders Get an ‘F’ in Ethics, Yet Again

Bruce Weinstein
Updated: Jan 09, 2016 

Here is an excerpt:

Business ethics can be improved

Public perception is malleable, so there is no reason why business executives have to remain stuck in the bottom of the Gallup poll. I propose the following four strategies for businesses that want to be regarded as honest and trustworthy:

Publicize your values. It never ceases to amaze me how few businesses list their company’s values and ethical commitments on their websites. This is the first Call to Action that I give businesses that hire me as a consultant: put your organization’s mission statement, code of ethics, and core values on the home page where they can be readily accessed.

Hire for character. The values and ethical standards you post on your website don’t mean anything if they’re not embodied by your employees. You understandably devote a lot of energy, time, and resources to hiring people who are knowledgeable and skilled. Isn’t it at least as important to hire people who are consistently honest, accountable, loyal, and fair—that is, men and women of high character?

Fire for character. Just as it’s crucial to bring high-character people into your organization, so too is it to get rid of those who don’t share your organization’s values. No matter how much the senior vice president of marketing knows about his or her field, if he or she has played fast and loose with the truth or hasn’t honored commitments to clients, why keep him or her on the payroll?

Reward excellence. I recently spoke at a Fortune 100 company on the day when five employees who embodied the company’s values were flown in to receive a prestigious award and a handsome bonus. One young man had found a $15,000 diamond ring in his store’s parking lot and had gone to considerable lengths to track down the owner. Imagine how the customer felt when her ring was returned. And imagine the positive word-of-mouth she gave the company.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Misguided mental health system needs an overhaul

Jim Gottstein
Alaska Dispatch News
Originally posted January 12, 2016

The glaring failures surrounding Esteban Santiago, resulting in the tragic killing of five people and wounding of eight others in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, prompts me to make some points about our misguided mental health system.

First, psychiatrists have no ability to predict who is going to be violent. In a Jan. 3, 2013, Washington Post article, "Predicting violence is a work in progress," after reviewing the research, writer David Brown, reported:

• "There is no instrument that is specifically useful or validated for identifying potential school shooters or mass murderers."

• "The best-known attempt to measure violence in mental patients found that mental illness by itself didn't predict an above-average risk of being violent."

• "(S)tudies have shown psychiatrists' accuracy in identifying patients who would become violent was slightly better than chance."

• "(T)he presence of a mental disorder (is) only a small contributor to risk, outweighed by other factors such as age, previous violent acts, alcohol use, impulsivity, gang membership and lack of family support."

The article is here.

Working for an Algorithm Might Be an Improvement

By Elaine Ou
Originally posted January 13, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

Bridgewater isn’t alone. Offices around the country are deploying tools to continuously monitor and assess employee activity. Complaints about the dehumanizing nature of working for algorithmic bosses such as Uber and Amazon have inspired comparisons to “Taylorism,” a scientific management theory remembered primarily for its use of stopwatches and specialized slide rules (like the one pictured below).


Scientific management doesn’t have to be a dehumanizing experience. Dalio says that Bridgewater's management systems are designed to improve decision-making, conflict resolution, and personal development. This doesn’t necessarily mean removing managers from the equation; it simply recognizes that humans are unique and fallible, and ideally enables them to develop unbiased solutions. Dalio says that Bridgewater employees have a turnover rate of less than 6 percent after the first two years of attrition. Assuming his employees haven’t been turned into cyborgs, he's probably doing something right.

The article is here.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Group-focused morality is associated with limited conflict detection and resolution capacity: Neuroanatomical evidence

Nash, Kyle, Baumgartner, Thomas, & Knoch, Daria
Biological Psychology
Volume 123, February 2017, Pages 235–240


Group-focused moral foundations (GMFs) − moral values that help protect the group’s welfare − sharply divide conservatives from liberals and religiously devout from non-believers. However, there is little evidence about what drives this divide. Moral foundations theory and the model of motivated social cognition both associate group-focused moral foundations with differences in conflict detection and resolution capacity, but in opposing directions. Individual differences in conflict detection and resolution implicate specific neuroanatomical differences. Examining neuroanatomy thus affords an objective and non-biased opportunity to contrast these influential theories. Here, we report that increased adherence to group-focused moral foundations was strongly associated (whole-brain corrected) with reduced gray matter volume in key regions of the conflict detection and resolution system (anterior cingulate cortex and lateral prefrontal cortex). Because reduced gray matter is reliably associated with reduced neural and cognitive capacity, these findings support the idea outlined in the model of motivated social cognition that belief in group-focused moral values is associated with reduced conflict detection and resolution capacity.

The article is here.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Real Problem With Hypocrisy

By Jillian Jordan, Roseanna Sommers, and David Rand
The New York Times - Gray Matters
Originally posted January 13, 2017

What, exactly, is the problem with hypocrisy? When someone condemns the behavior of others, why do we find it so objectionable if we learn he engages in the same behavior himself?

The answer may seem self-evident. Not practicing what you preach; lacking the willpower to live up to your own ideals; behaving in ways you obviously know are wrong — these are clear moral failings.

Perhaps. But new research of ours, forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science (and in collaboration with our colleague Paul Bloom), suggests a different explanation. We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication — not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.

The article is here.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Beyond Conflicts of Interest: Disclosing Medical Biases

David M. Shaw
JAMA. 2014;312(7):697-698.

The editors of medical and scientific journals always ask authors of papers to declare any financial conflicts of interest (COIs) related to their research. There has recently been a shift away from allowing authors to decide what constitutes a financial COI toward asking them to disclose any potential perceived COI; some journal editors even ask authors to disclose any and all financial interests that they have. But there has also been a shift away from this focus on financial COIs toward a wider conception of COI that includes other types of bias. Since 2010, all journals associated with the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) have asked authors to complete a unified COI form that requires disclosure of the following:

1. Associations with commercial entities that provided support for the work reported in the submitted
manuscript (the timeframe for disclosure in this section of the form is the life span of the work being reported).

2. Associations with commercial entities that could be viewed as having an interest in the general area of the submitted manuscript (in the three years before submission of the manuscript).

3. Non-financial associations that may be relevant or seen as relevant to the submitted manuscript.

The article is here.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Will artificial intelligence help to crack biology?

The Economist
Originally published January 7, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Another important biological hurdle that AI can help people surmount is complexity. Experimental science progresses by holding steady one variable at a time, an approach that is not always easy when dealing with networks of genes, proteins or other molecules. AI can handle this more easily than human beings.

At BERG Health, the firm’s AI system starts by analysing tissue samples, genomics and other clinical data relevant to a particular disease. It then tries to model from this information the network of protein interactions that underlie that disease. At that point human researchers intervene to test the model’s predictions in a real biological system. One of the potential drugs BERG Health has discovered this way—for topical squamous-cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer—passed early trials for safety and efficacy, and now awaits full-scale testing. The company says it has others in development.

For all the grand aspirations of the AI folk, though, there are reasons for caution. Dr Mead warns: “I don’t think we are in a state to model even a single cell. The model we have is incomplete.” Actually, that incompleteness applies even to models of single proteins, meaning that science is not yet good at predicting whether a particular modification will make a molecule intended to interact with a given protein a better drug or not. Most known protein structures have been worked out from crystallised versions of the molecule, held tight by networks of chemical bonds. In reality, proteins are flexible, but that is much harder to deal with.

The article is here.

New fertility procedure may lead to 'embryo farming', warn researchers

Ian Sample
The Guardian
Originally posted January 11, 2017

A new lab procedure that could allow fertility clinics to make sperm and eggs from people’s skin may lead to “embryo farming” on a massive scale and drive parents to have only “ideal” future children, researchers warn.

Legal and medical specialists in the US say that while the procedure – known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) – has only been demonstrated in mice so far, the field is progressing so fast that the dramatic impact it could have on society must be planned for now.

“We try not to take a position on these issues except to point out that before too long we may well be facing them, and we might do well to start the conversation now,” said Eli Adashi, professor of medical science at Brown University in Rhode Island.

The creation of sperm and eggs from other tissues has become possible through a flurry of recent advances in which scientists have learned first to reprogram adult cells into a younger, more versatile state, and then to grow them into functioning sex cells. In October, scientists in Japan announced for the first time the birth of baby mice from eggs made with their parent’s skin.

The article is here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

New American Psychiatric Association Policy Prohibits Participation in Euthanasia of Non-Terminally Ill

Mark Moran
Psychiatric News
Published online: January 03, 2017

A psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person to cause death, according to a position statement passed by the APA Assembly at its meeting in Washington, D.C., this past November. The statement was approved one month later by the APA Board of Trustees by unanimous consent.

The precise wording of the Position Statement on Medical Euthanasia is as follows: “The American Psychiatric Association, in concert with the American Medical Association’s position on medical euthanasia, holds that a psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.”

(Policies and position statements approved by the Assembly are not official APA policy until they are approved by the Board. For a complete report on Board actions at its meeting this past December, see the next issue of Psychiatric News.)

In an interview with Psychiatric News, Mark S. Komrad M.D., an Assembly representative from the Southern Psychiatric Association who cosponsored the position statement in the Assembly, said it was crafted in response to reports from Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe that physician involvement in “assisted suicide” had evolved from assisting terminally ill patients to die to actively helping non-terminally ill patients—including mentally ill individuals—die. Annette Hanson, M.D., was co-sponsor of the statement in the Assembly.

The article is here.

Why It’s So Hard to Train Someone to Make an Ethical Decision

Eugene Soltes
Harvard Business Review
Originally posted January 11, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The second factor distinguishing training exercises from real-life decision making is that training inevitably exposes different points of views and judgments. Although many organizations outwardly express a desire for a diversity of opinions, in practice those differing viewpoints are often stifled by the desire to agree or appease others. Even at the most senior levels of the organization, independent directors struggle to dissent. For instance, Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco who grew the firm from obscurity into a global conglomerate but later faced criminal charges for embezzlement, recalled the challenge of board members genuinely disagreeing and pushing back on him as CEO when the firm was performing well. “When the CEO is in the room, directors — even independent directors — tend to want to try to please him,” Kozlowski explained. “The board would give me anything I wanted. Anything.”

Finally, unlike in training, when a single decision might be given an hour of careful analysis, most actual decisions are made quickly and rely on intuition rather than careful, reflective reasoning. This can be especially problematic for moral decisions, which often rely on routine and intuitions that produce mindless judgements that don’t match up with how we’d desire to respond if we considered the decision with more time.

The article is here.

Editor's note: While I agree that it can be difficult to teach someone to make an ethical decision, maybe we can develop alternative ways to teach ethical decision-making. Ethics education requires attention to how personal values blend with work responsibilities, emotional reactions to ethical dilemmas, and biases and heuristics related to decision-making skills in general, and ethics in particular.  If an individual feels pressure to make a decision, then there are typically ways to slow down the process.  Finally, ethics education can include quality enhancement strategies, including redundant protections and consultation, that can bolster the opportunity for better outcomes.